Can Republicans accept power sharing?

In this week’s Newsletter column Alex Kane has trouble getting excited about the IRA statement. He argues that the Republican movement is refusing to face some fundamental political truths about Northern Ireland’s future, and wonders aloud whether its because it cannot face genuine power sharing with its erstwhile political opponents – the Unionists.By Alex Kane

It really is very hard to work up any enthusiasm for the IRA statement. The organisation is still only half-way to where it should have been in 1998. Instead, it spent the next seven years lining its pockets and bullying from the sidelines. And while this particular statement may lack the torturous semantics of its predecessors, it still adds up to in-your-face guff.

The IRA has lost and lost big time. The prospect of a United Ireland is as far away today as it was in 1970, when the Provisionals first bombed their way into the headlines; or July, 1972, when Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams were flown to London for secret talks with the British government. There is no hope of a United Ireland and thirty-five years of ditches, safe houses, hunger strikes and republican propaganda, has led to nothing more than a formal recognition of partition and the opportunity for IRA members to govern Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

The unionist presence is as strong as it has ever been. This is a victory for the entire pro-Union community, who refused to be bombed, blackmailed or bargained out of their beliefs. The IRA may say that the “armed campaign” is finally over, but the truth of the matter is that the end purpose of that campaign—to remove the British from Ireland—was never a serious prospect. That being the case, the IRA is having to settle for the removal of the watch-towers and the return of its on-the-runs. Again, not much to show for thirty-five years of terror.

That is the stark reality underpinning the statement, a reality which seems to have been ignored in the media hoopla and the fatuous response from Tony Blair. Mind you, Blair’s comment that this is “…a step of unparalleled magnitude…” perfectly encapsulates the hypocrisy of the whole thing. It was, after all, the spineless attitude of successive administrations, which encouraged the IRA to believe that its terror campaign could deliver the ultimate dividend of a united Ireland.

But the IRA hasn’t gone away. It hasn’t disbanded. It hasn’t apologised. It hasn’t faced up to political reality. It hasn’t made any concessions to unionism or unionists. It justifies the legitimacy of its terrorism. It hasn’t ruled out another campaign at another time. It hasn’t promised to dismantle the paramilitary apparatus, which allows it to keep whole geographical areas and housing estates under its control. It isn’t handing back the money it has stuffed away in numerous secret accounts. In essence, the statement is the same old baloney of finger-pointing self-righteousness.

Yet it is precisely because Mr. Blair has interpreted it as being of “unparalleled magnitude” which leads me to believe that it is unionists, rather than Sinn Fein, who will again be pressurised into delivering more concessions, or remain deprived of devolved and fully democratic institutions of government. The appeasement machine has already been cranked up, showering Sinn Fein with face-saving goodies, while reminding unionists of how fickle and surrender-driven the NIO and Number 10 are likely to be.

The problem, of course, is that the statement, and the reaction of the British, Irish and American governments, causes huge problems for unionism in general and the DUP in particular. In one fell swoop the IRA has been removed from the equation; but without having been removed from the political undergrowth. The DUP will be told that this is as good as it will get and that the statement should be regarded as a final and definitive one. In other words, the issues of disbanding and disappearing are, as far as the governments are concerned, completely off the political agenda.

The DUP has been given a stark choice. Take it or leave it. They will be given another stark choice in a few weeks time—talk to Sinn Fein directly about re-establishing devolution, or forget about devolution for the forseeable future. The DUP has very little room for manoeuvre and it will not be allowed to drag out the process for very much longer. Putting it bluntly, Tony Blair, having found it, is not going to risk losing the Holy Grail of every Prime Minister since 1968, the ending of republican violence.

Sinn Fein, it must be remembered, has problems of its own. P.O’Neill has written of the IRA’s decision to “…advance our republican and democratic objectives, including our goal of a united Ireland. We believe there is now an alternative way to achieve this and to end British rule in our country.” There is no such alternative. The pro-Union majority is not going to be out-bred or out-voted and Northern Ireland is not going to be evicted from the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland has come a very long way since 1995. It has still a very long way to go. The whole process could move much faster if Sinn Fein and the IRA had the courage to abandon rhetoric and embrace political reality. Unionism, all of it, has accepted the reality of power-sharing and the Irish dimension as the price to be paid for devolution. Are republicans wilfully or psychologically incapable of accepting power-sharing and the British dimension? If so, then the IRA’s statement will, as I suspect, amount to no more than another false dawn in the peace process.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday July 30th, 2005